A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during the Turkish Cypriots election for a new leader in the Turkish occupied area in the north part of the divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. Turkish Cypriots vote to choose a leader who'll explore, with rival Greek Cypriots, whether there's enough common ground left for a deal to end the island's decades of ethnic division. (AP Photo/Nedim Enginsoy)

Turkish Cypriots choose leader with peace deal at stake

October 11, 2020 - 12:42 pm

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Turkish Cypriots began voting Sunday for a leader tasked with overcoming their deep political chasms with Greek Cypriots in order to pave the way for a deal to end 46 years of ethnic division in Cyprus and quell tensions over offshore energy reserves.

The election comes amid allegations that Turkey is overtly trying to steer the 200,000-strong electorate toward right-wing candidate Ersin Tatar. Tatar advocates fully aligning Turkish Cypriot polices with those of Ankara, such as pursuing a possible two-state deal as an alternative to the long-held federal model for the divided Mediterranean island.

With polls now closed, early returns indicate that Tatar will face off against leftist incumbent Mustafa Akinci in a runoff next week. Center-left CTP party leader Tufan Erhurman is trailing in third place.

Turnout appeared to be a record low in a leadership election, with just under 55% of voters casting their ballots, around 7% lower than the last poll five years ago.

Tatar told reporters after voting that he's hopeful the election would demonstrate the “proper will” of Turkish Cypriots about the future of their breakaway state, which is recognized only by Turkey.

The first major test for the winner will likely be a meeting hosted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres that will bring together the two sides with Cyprus’ three ‘guarantors’ — Greece, Turkey and Britain — to scope out the chances of resuming frozen peace talks.

The Mediterranean island has been divided between a Greek Cypriot south — seat of the internationally recognized government — and the breakaway north since 1974, when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Decades of talks have failed to deliver a peace deal.

Allegations that Turkey is trying to influence the election’s outcome this time more than ever came to a head last week when Turkey opened to the public a beach in uninhabited Varosha, a Famagusta suburb that for has remained off-limits since 1974 when its Greek Cypriot residents fled advancing Turkish troops.

Many Turkish Cypriots voiced opposition to the move that they saw as a ploy to boost support for Tatar, and Greek Cypriots expressed anger at the beachfront's reopening.

The United Nations Security Council on Saturday expressed “deep concern” over the beach reopening and called for its reversal while cautioning against “any unilateral actions that could raise tensions on the island.”

Akinci, a strong supporter of a federal accord with Greek Cypriots and a champion of Turkish Cypriots who oppose Turkey’s complete dominion over their affairs, denounced the move as a “stain” on democracy and as an attempt to turn Varosha in to a campaign tool.

He spoke of a Turkish media campaign to sully his name and earlier said he had received threats against him and his family, urging him to withdraw his candidacy.

“Unfortunately during the campaign, authorities of the Turkish Republic openly intervened and kept biased stance," Akinci told reporters Sunday, adding that some officials had canvassed villages to trade favors for votes.

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